According to St. Augustine, whose feast day we celebrate today, songs of worship—and all forms of worship—are primarily about God whom we are worshipping.
“Worship is nothing at all about what we get out of it; worship is completely about what we can give to God.”
Consequently, we must come to Mass aware of God’s glory and goodness, who he is and what he has done.
God Determines True Worship
If worship is an act of love for God and about what we give to God, then what matters most is what God wants. Worship is not determined by what we find interesting, entertaining, educational, or aesthetically pleasing. It is determined instead by what is most appropriate and glorifying to God.
We are not left guessing about this. Throughout history, God has made known the kind of worship he desires. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The narrative that recounts this great event makes plain the fact that God delivered the Israelites for the purpose of procuring true worship from them (see Exodus 3:12; 4:22-23; 7:16; 9:1; 10:3, 24-26). God liberates them from servitude to Pharaoh so they might serve God by offering sacrifices to him:
“They will hearken to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; … now, we pray you, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’”Exodus 3:18
Exodus 19:5-6 states that the Israelites will be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is clear in the song of Zechariah (which we recite in Morning Prayer). Zechariah states that God promised to deliver his people from their enemies so they might be free to worship him without fear (Luke 1:67-79). Upon their liberation, God gives the Israelites very detailed instructions about how they should worship him (see Exodus 25-30).
So Prepare Yourselves
One of the important features of the worship of God was the preparation of the people. The Israelites could not just rush into the presence of God from the daily tasks and immediately jump into worship. They had to first be prepared and cleansed (see Leviticus 22). Sacrifices were unacceptable if offered improperly or impurely. It was very clear that while the Tabernacle was part of Israel’s camp and, later, the Temple was part of Israel’s kingdom, it was holy, it was sacred, and therefore different from the surrounding places. To enter it, you must first leave behind the normal world.
So too we should not expect that we can quickly take our pew and partake of the Eucharist moments later. We must examine ourselves to ensure we are able to receive the Eucharist, set aside certain worries or wants, and concentrate on the glory of the Lord. We must steady our hearts and still our minds so that we can give them completely to God.
The Mass has four major parts: Preparation, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Commission. It is during the Preparation that we warm ourselves up, as it were, to the act of worship and prepare ourselves to worthily offer ourselves and receive from Christ.
Sing for Love
In Sunday Mass, the Preparation typically begins with a hymn sung while the clergy and servers process to the altar. As the Israelites journeyed to the Temple, they would sing Psalms. It was a joyous occasion. So too, as the ministers approach the altar and we make our approach spiritually in our hearts, we sing. The opening hymn, in other words, is not just filler as people are taking their seats and the ministers are entering—a way of drowning out the noise or marking the beginning of Mass. It is the first and fundamentally a preparation of our heart.
St. Augustine (354-430 AD) explained hymns in his sermon on Psalm 72 this way:
“Hymns are praises offered to God with singing; hymns are songs, with God’s praise as their theme … For there to be a hymn, three elements are required: there must be praise, it must be for God, and it must be sung … The singer of praise is not only performing musically but showing love for the one who is sung about. To confess God by praise is a way of preaching him; to pour out passion in song is the way of a lover.”Expositions of the Psalms, volume 3, 470
Notice that St. Augustine emphasizes that hymns are not a musical performance but an expression of love. As a father of five children, I know that children are often quite anxious of their place in the home. Mom and dad are able to do so much, they worry about how they fit in. There is a general feeling of being unsure. To make them feel at ease and to reassure them of my love, I sing to them, perhaps during the day, but certainly at bedtime when they might feel abandoned and alone. The song soothes them, yes, but it is the love expressed in singing that truly assures them. As poems and love songs from the ages attest, singing is the best mode for communicating love.
What Befits God’s Grandeur?
There is an ancient proverb, commonly attributed to St. Augustine, that says, “he who sings, prays twice.” What does this mean? Most basically, singing embeds words in our hearts and minds so much more effectively than merely speaking them. We are much more likely to remember a hymn than a collect. Through song our prayers penetrate more deeply into our souls. But there is more to this notion. To pray is to unite yourself to God. God is beautiful. Therefore, praying in such a way that not only the words are eloquent but the way they are uttered is beautiful is ideal.
This is why the Preparation begins with a hymn: it gives us a chance to make that loving commitment to God beyond our personal preferences and priorities. The opening hymn is an opportunity to rouse up our restless hearts for the love of God. If we do not care for the music or the hymn, it does not matter. We sing for God, not for ourselves. The only important question is: what kind of music and song best befits God’s grandeur?
Sing for Unity
The opening hymn has a secondary function: to unite the people of God. Singing binds people together in harmony. The unifying impact of music was not lost on early Christians. They believed the unison of voices in song was a tangible demonstration of the unity of Christians in Christ. We have many early attestations to this notion, but take just this example from the early Christian bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius (35-107AD):
Therefore by your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is being sung. Now do each of you join this choir, that being harmoniously in concord you may receive the key of God in unison, and sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, that he may both hear you and may recognize, through your good works, that you are members of his son. It is therefore profitable for you to be in blameless unity.Epistle to the Ephesians 4, 1
Anytime the congregation prepares to do something together—to begin or end, to prepare to hear the Gospel or to present their offerings—they do so by singing. This is why our worship begins with a hymn, to bring us together and unify us as one body. It is unfortunate that so often when people sing they concentrate on themselves, worrying whether they are on key or what the persons around them will think. This is contrary to the purpose of hymns.
The hymns should be times when we express our love for God and express the unity we have in the Body of Christ. Don’t hold back out of fear. Don’t be one of those people who look at people who are singing loudly and proudly. Sing boldly for love for Christ and for love of his Body, the Church.
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About Dr. James Merrick
Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is a reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and five children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.